Central American forests are being clandestinely destroyed by drug traffickers cutting roads and runways into large swaths of protected land, according to a new policy paper in the journal Science.

The phenomenon, labeled "narco-deforestation," is occurring throughout Guatemala and Honduras, and perhaps elsewhere.

Erik Nielsen, an assistant professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability at Northern Arizona University, said the illegal drug trade is affecting both the environment and society.

"Not only are societies being ripped apart, but forests are being ripped apart," he said, adding that drug traffickers are slashing down forests within protected areas to build roads and an airstrips, and that cattle ranches are being established on cleared land as fronts to launder drug money.

Nielsen, who has done research in Central America for many years, said that it was serendipitous that he and his colleagues figured out what was actually happening after they began to notice disturbing deforestation trends at multiple sites in Guatemala and Honduras. His original research involved outreach to local communities to educate them on community-based conservation, but as he was on the ground there, he said multiple lines of inquiry converged and led him to realize that the deforestation in the region was being fueled by drug traffickers.

"Around 2007, we started to see this pretty amazing uptick in deforestation in communities where I've been doing research for a long time," Nielsen said. "We started asking, 'What's going on here?' The presence of narco-traffickers was the response."

Nielsen said an area that is being destroyed by narco-deforestatioin is the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a vast habitat that stretches from Mexico through most of Central America. The corridor was established to protect biodiversity, and Nielsen called the region "equal to the Grand Canyon in terms of how the international community looks at their cultural and biological values."

"There is going to be a long-term consequence" from this deforestation, he said.

Nielsen added that although he and his colleagues are not drug policy experts, they hope their research will influence those who are.

"However that discussion takes place, conservation should be a major factor in how we think about drug policy," Nielsen said.